Wearing out clothes > buying new and donating old

Much of what is written on clutter and organisation blogs focusses on how to ‘declutter’, i.e. how to decide which things to get rid of. Plenty of these blogs also suggest responsible ways in which to get rid of your excess stuff, either through recycling or donation to charity.

I believe that these efforts to keep your stuff out of landfill are laudable. However, there are still issues with even donating your things to charity, that make me think that the better option is to not buy new stuff, and to wear what you have until the point at which it falls apart. And then cut it into rags for cleaning. Buying new and then donating is a cycle, which is not necessarily a helpful one! There are two thoughts which drive my reasoning behind this:

Thought #1: the urge to consume
If you want the physical and mental space that an uncluttered closet gives you, and you buy new clothes, you will need to donate some old clothes to maintain the space. Often a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule works well for this, and has plenty of benefits, including financial ones. However, to my mind, this can create a cycle in which you still buy new things, safe in the knowledge that your minimalist lifestyle won’t be disrupted, as you can just move some other stuff along by donating, feeling warm and fuzzy about giving to charity in the process. This approach doesn’t necessarily lead us to think critically about consumption, capitalism, disposable/’upgrade’ culture, moreover, we still spend time and energy on shopping – researching and choosing what it is we want to buy, going out to get it, getting the instant-yet-temporary high from the purchase etc. Many of the benefits of minimalism are lost in the buy/donate cycle.

Thought #2: the global impact of continued consumption
This line of thought is (for me, development studies graduate and generally concerned global citizen) the more compelling reasoning to stop buying and donating.

First, of course, buying new stuff means a higher environmental impact. This short article on the environmental impact of denim gives but a tiny snapshot of the resources used and damaged created by the manufacture of new jeans. Then we have the issues of the living and working conditions of the people who make the clothes to consider.

But there is also an issue with the donation side of the cycle, not just the buying new aspect. Goodwill in the US, and charities over here often receive far more clothes and other donations than they can realistically resell, or the donations are unsellable – think about the free company logo t shirt that you got from that teambuilding conference in 2003 – who would buy that from a charity shop? Often what happens to these excess items is that they are made into clothing bales and shipped to the developing world to be sold there. This is still re-use for the clothes, so better than just chucking them in landfill, but the massive influx of Western cast-offs is not an unequivocal good, as it often undermines the local economy and local manufacturer’s efforts to make and sell clothes. Kind of similar to the issues with TOMS shoes Buy-One-Give-One model. Dumping our cast-offs on the ‘less fortunate’ is not always helpful, and in fact can often be quite the opposite.

Of course, there are plenty of ways in which donating your old clothes can be constructive – if your stuff does get sold in the local charity shop and raises money, or if your clothes go directly to the backs of local homeless people in need, that’s all well and good! However, it’s hard to know exactly where your clothes may end up when you donate, so justifying a buy-and-donate cycle on the grounds that your donations are ‘doing good’ is not always easy. When this issue is added to the others of buying into consumerist culture, time spent on shopping and donating, and the environmental and human impact, this points towards opting out of the cycle.

The Alternative
It seems to me that the better option is to not upgrade/update your wardrobe, and instead to wear your clothes out completely. That doesn’t necessarily mean looking a mess – it can work to downgrade things that are looking particularly scruffy to ‘around the house only’, then ‘doing the gardening’, then to shred really decrepit clothes into cleaning rags, or stuffing for a cushion.

If you buy a lot fewer clothes, it will be quicker to wear them out than if you have a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes that would take years to wear out. This aspect helps me with one of the struggles I have with this whole concept, which is keeping up with fashion. Now, I’m hardly a fashionista (far from it), but even I am not going to be wearing 1999’s bootleg cut jeans in 2014! It is nice to look and feel good in what you are wearing, to be dressed appropriately for your job and so on. Having a few clothes that you wear until they wear out means that you can replace them with something nice and up to date relatively regularly, and use those bootleg jeans for painting the kitchen.

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